The least popular line in President Obama's State of the Union address, judging by the hear-a-pin-drop reaction from members of Congress and others in the audience, came when he declared that ISIS may "pose a direct threat to our people" but its members "do not threaten our national existence."
When Obama paused for applause, fewer than a dozen of the hundreds in attendance obliged him — the only such moment of the evening.
It was a revealing moment. Among Middle East and national security experts, it is considered a self-evident and banal truth to say that ISIS's threat falls far short of existential. Yet on the main stage of American politics, acknowledging this well-known fact is considered not just impolitic but practically unspeakable.
The political toxicity of that line was, I suspect, not an accident but rather precisely the point. And it spoke to a seeming mission of Obama's final State of the Union: to not just assuage American fears but also reshape Americans' understanding of the world itself.
It is part of what I suspect the administration will take up as a mission in its final year: to close what it sees as the dangerously wide divide between American fears, which it sees as overinflated by irresponsible media hype and by cynical politicians looking to scare people, and a reality that is challenging but not nearly so perilous. It worries that this divide, this artificial climate of fear, is damaging not just to the president's approval ratings — although there is that — but to the incentives that shape American foreign policy, and indeed to the very fabric of American life.
You could see that divide, and Obama wading into it, unpopularity be damned, in Congress's predictably chilly reception to his line about ISIS not posing an existential threat. But the speech was laced throughout with this message: Our fears are overstated, and more than that, they pose a danger in themselves.
The constraints of American politics
In both its successes and its shortcoming, the Obama administration's foreign policy has always emphasized not just taking a cautious and diplomacy-first approach to the world but also working within what it has frequently called the art of the possible. You could see that in its seizure of opportunity with Cuba and with Iran, but also in its losses-cutting modesty of ambitions on Syria or on Egypt.
The Obama administration will defend this approach as necessary for balancing risks with rewards, for furthering American interests where possible and otherwise avoiding costly overreach or overreaction. Yet the White House has always felt frustrated by the demands of the fear-obsessed media and of toughness-obsessed American political norms to act in ways that it views as counterproductive or even dangerous. And it views those demands as rooted, at least partially, in fundamental misunderstandings about the world and how it works; about the severity of the threats we face as well as about what will ease those threats versus make them worse.
In the past, the Obama administration, owing to emphasis on the art of the possible, has attempted to work largely within or around these constraints. But now Obama is making it his mission to take on those misapprehensions directly, to reshape how Americans think about the threats they face, and the role and possibilities of American power in addressing them.
Obama framed this, explicitly, as one of the major themes of his State of the Union:
And that’s why the third big question we have to answer is how to keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem. I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.
This is why Obama spent much of his speech contrasting what he views as misapprehensions about American weakness and vulnerability with the reality of American strength and security. In the administration's view, these misapprehensions are not just incorrect but also at the root of so much American fear that Obama sees as a substantial threat in itself.
Yes, there is a self-interested incentive here for polishing up the president's legacy and his bruised image on foreign policy. But there was also, throughout Obama's speech, what Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post called "a note of deep concern for a nation he has only a year left to govern."
Yet in conversations with White House officials, I've come away with the impression that they earnestly worry about the consequences of American misapprehensions, both for the fear they generate in our politics and for the bad policies they can sometimes push for. They see it as their responsibility to help Americans navigate what can often be a scary-seeming world, in part by assuring them that they have policies to deal with the dangers, but also by actively helping people see beyond the media hysteria and political hype that can so distort how we see the world's dangers.
Changing how Americans think about ISIS
You could see this play out particularly in Obama's discussion of what is legitimately the scariest yet also the most overhyped threat facing Americans: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Yes, the speech was careful to note that groups such as ISIS do pose a danger that demands to be taken seriously. But rather than just ticking through his policies and his proposals for engaging those dangers, and beyond even just downplaying the threat ISIS poses, Obama repeatedly attempted to reframe Americans' understanding of the nature of that threat — even when that meant raising some hard truths.
"For even without ISIL, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world—in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in parts of Central America, Africa, and Asia," he said. "Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks; others will fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees."
This is a remarkable admission from a sitting president: that ISIS and its threat are rooted, at least to some extent, in abstract forces such as the internal instability of far-off failed states. This is not a narrative that lends itself well to politics, because it doesn't present an emotionally satisfying narrative, a clear villain, or certainly an obvious solution.
Particularly unusual was Obama's statement that this instability "will continue for decades," which he echoed elsewhere in the speech, referring to Middle Eastern threats as rooted partially in "a transformation that will play out for a generation."
Obama is asking Americans to take on a truth that is widely held as dull conventional wisdom by serious observers of foreign policy yet considered taboo in American politics and on TV news: that there are some forces in the world outside of American control.
The dangers facing Americans, he said, are "not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower." Rather, "In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states."
Obama's case for optimism
It is both valid and correct to ask whether the Obama administration overindulged this modesty on particular foreign policy issues, most especially on Syria and Iraq. But the broad philosophy is both intellectually sound and considered completely taboo in American politics. And that taboo is what Obama is hoping to change.
This is not, despite critics' accusations, a philosophy of defeatism, but rather one of what the administration views as patience and optimism. As Peter Beinart has written, Obama "believes that powerful, structural forces will lead liberal democracies to triumph over their foes — so long as these democracies don’t do stupid things like persecuting Muslims at home or invading Muslim lands abroad." This applies especially on ISIS and jihadism, which are built on losing ideologies and doomed missions.
Long-term optimism about the arc of history, though, does not play well on cable TV, and it is a disaster in the 15-minute political news cycle, particularly in a campaign season that privileges easy answers and appealing narratives over sobriety and hard truths.
So it was not a minor task to argue, as Obama did during his address, that Americans should replace their fears about the world with optimism; that the crisis that seems so terrifying is, counterintuitively, also a reminder not just that America is vastly stronger and more powerful than its enemies but also that American ideals have shown time and again that they will ultimately triumph.
Yes, it's a worldview that casts Obama's foreign policy record in a more flattering light — since his actions flow from his worldview, obviously they will look better from his perspective — but it's also a pretty difficult pitch to make. An easier pitch might be to frame challenges such as ISIS within the more traditional Washington norms of good-versus-evil and military might overcoming enemies, and indeed Obama could point to the rapid degradation of ISIS territory and the ISIS leaders killed in US strikes.
But the administration has chosen the somewhat more difficult mission of acknowledging America's limitations and the unfixable nature of certain problems because it sees this as part of the larger mission of counteracting the roots of the fear that so concerns it.
"What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical," Obama said. But he warned: "We can’t afford to go down that path."
Fear itself: Obama's warning against the corrupting effect of panic
Obama's calls for sobriety in the face of threats is typically described as an attempt to bolster and defend his foreign policy that is based in modesty and optimism. And he did warn that overreaction can be "a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us." But he also repeatedly raised a larger point: that Americans' own fear can pose a tremendous threat to American values here at home.
He posed this as a choice: of maintaining long-held American values of progress versus indulging fear and, in so doing, betraying those values:
Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?
He warned of "those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control."
And while this last line was read, correctly, as a jab at Donald Trump, it was also an appeal to resist fear-based ideas that the Obama administration sees as a very real threat. Obama, in cautioning against betraying American ideals of openness and plurality, quoted something Pope Francis had said in an earlier speech to Congress: "to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place."
It's worth pausing to absorb the scale of this warning: that fear-based hatred can lead to tyranny. This is not a modest claim. Obama went on, highlighting America's rising Islamophobia and describing what were, in some ways, the most dire warnings in the entire speech:
When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.
In case there was any doubt that this danger is real, this was another place where Obama paused for applause, and the audience responded with less than you might hope for. Yes, most of those in attendance stood to applaud, but an alarming number of lawmakers on the right side of the aisle chose to sit, their arms at their sides.
It was difficult to tell, but I would estimate that perhaps a fifth or a fourth of the audience, on hearing Obama's warning against vandalizing houses of worship and inciting against minorities — which one might hope would be uncontroversial opinions — chose to sit in quiet protest.
When that happens, and when the world sees it happen, the American values of inclusiveness and tolerance that bind us together are indeed under threat, as are the global admiration of those values. It is difficult to measure that threat against the more palpable and certainly more discussed threat from, say, the Islamic State. But the differences in how we perceive and discuss those two threats are, in the eyes of the Obama administration, of real concern.